Is France too chauvinist for a female leader?

When Ségolène Royal cautiously admitted that she was thinking of running for the most senior office in France, she was greeted with a chorus of disapproval. The objection? She is a woman. John Lichfield reports on a culture of chauvinism that continues to blight top-level French politics
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The Independent Online

But the ultra-right nationalist and the socialist apparatchik do agree on one thing. Both say Ségolène Royal will be the first woman to become president of the French Republic.

They are not the only ones to make such a rash prediction. I attended a Socialist rally in Mme Royal's home region of Poitou-Charente a couple of years ago. The hall, in the small, working-class town of La Couronne, near Angoulème, throbbed with enthusiasm for "Ségo", the elegant, cool, beautiful daughter of a right-wing army officer. The man next to me, a 50-something local councillor, said: "I have known it for a long time. People in this region have known it for a long time. Ségolène will be the first woman to become president."

Why, then, has Mme Royal's half-declaration of her possible interest in running for the presidency in 2007 ("only if I am asked by the party ... only if the moment is right") generated such a cacophony of jeers and insults? Why have most of the insults come from within her own party?

As Angela Merkel inches nearer to becoming the first woman chancellor of Germany, French politics has been faced with a bizarre and disturbing prospect: a madame president, or presidente, of the Republic.

It is not a prospect which appeals to the men, even the most supposedly progressive. Jacques Lang, the obsessively politically correct, sixty-something former culture and education minister, said the presidency "should not be a beauty contest". Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister, mocked François Hollande, the Socialist party's first secretary, Mme Royal's "husband", and father of her four children.

M. Fabius sneered: "Maybe we should have a rotating [husband and wife] presidency. But who would look after the children?" M. Fabius and M. Lang, of course, entertain presidential ambitions. But this does not entirely explain, or excuse, their reactions to Mme Royal's cautious statement in Paris-Match that she would run "if I am asked ... if I am best placed to help the party win".

The truth is that Mme Royal's conditional declaration of interest in the supreme job in French politics has produced a chorus of gibes largely because she is a woman. Mme Royal, 52, said yesterday: "It is just as if any old 'he' has a right to say that they are ready to run, but no 'she' has that right. These comments do not reflect the opinions of the great majority of Socialist party members ... The people who have made these remarks have insulted only themselves."

One Socialist politician who has abstained from jibes is François Hollande, 51. He and Mme Royal have lived together for 24 years. Their children are aged between 23 and 13. By Ségolène's choice, they have never married. (Since you ask, it is François who cooks and shops.)

François and Ségolène are a power couple unique in the world. Unlike, say, Bill and Hillary, or Tony and Cherie, or Jacques and Bernadette Chirac, they are not a political double-act, in which the woman complements the man or emerges from the shadow of the man. They are both successful politicians in their own rights; both preach a practical, moderate social democracy; both are ambitious.

Their friends have long predicted that there could be a collision of interests one day. M. Hollande already faces a difficult struggle to keep his party together, and keep his job, after the Socialist Party split over the EU referendum in May. He was evidently taken aback by Ségolène's "declaration", which he rightly said was "not really a declaration". The last thing he needed before a potentially bloody party conference in November was a row within the party about his wife. Ségolène's "non-declaration declaration" can then be seen partly as a warning to her compagne, or common-law husband, that she was not going to sit on the sidelines forever. There have been rumours for weeks that all was not well between Ségo and François. Her friends and supporters started a website in the summer - "Ségolène. 2007" - urging her to run.

Mme Royal did not tell François in advance what she was going to tell Paris-Match. On the other hand, she said she would never run for the presidency without the "support of François".

Within a couple of days, it was the turn of the most powerful woman on the French centre-right, Michèle Alliot-Marie. Mme Alliot-Marie - or Mam as she is universally known - said she also "hoped to play an influential role" in the 2007 race. Mme Alliot-Marie was the first woman to become defence minister in 2002 and is the first and only woman to lead a major French party. She did not exactly declare her hand. But she did remind the two men already jostling for the centre-right "nomination" - the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy - that politics is not a two-handed game, and not reserved for boys only.

Mam's "declaration" produced no gibes on the centre-right, probably because she has little real chance of getting anywhere. Ségolène's "declaration" sent shivers down socialist male spines because she does have a chance - an outside chance - of taking the centre-left nomination. Opinion polls frequently name her as the most popular socialist politician in France. A poll after her Paris-Match interview took her to the top of the long provisional list of socialist runners and riders, alongside M. Lang.

She is an excellent TV performer, a powerful stump-speaker, someone capable of talking politics in ordinary language (even though she is a product of the notorious Ecole Nationale d'Administration or ENA, the French finishing school for an arrogant, pointy-headed political elite.)

Most of all, as M. Le Pen once pointed out, she is one of the few Socialist politicians in France to talk convincingly of social and family "values", bridging the normal ideological gulf between left and right. She has been a successful and popular president of the Poitou-Charente region (Poitiers, La Rochelle, the Cognac country) since 2003. This is not a region previously regarded as easy territory for the left. If she was a man, she would be a, maybe the, leading centre-left candidate. Because she is a woman, she is jeered by her own camp.

France prides itself on being a nation of social advance, from the declaration of human rights in 1792 to the 35-hour week in 1998. Although it is struggling economically, it would be in dire straits were it not for its women. Four in five French women have jobs, more than almost any other EU country. They are also producing more babies than any other EU nation, save Ireland.

But France is also a conservative-Catholic, Mediterranean-macho country, where women are kept in the background. Only 4.5 per cent of French company directors are women (compared to 20 per cent in China). There has been, briefly and disastrously, one woman prime minister, Edith Cresson in 1991-92. But there are only 71 women in the Assembleé Nationale, and 506 men. This makes France 74th in the league table of female inclusion in national politics, behind Iraq and Afghanistan.

French women had to wait until 1944 to be given the right to vote, 20 years after women in Britain and 10 years after women in Turkey. France is not ready for a Madame Presidente, socialist officials say privately, excusing the reaction to Mme Royal's interview. Paris may be ready. Other big cities may be ready. But rural and small town France, La France Profonde, is no more ready to vote for a woman for president than it is to vote for Bertrand Delanoe, the successful, moderate Mayor of Paris.

M. Delanoe is the only senior politician in France to have openly declared himself a homosexual. He has been urged to join the lengthening queue of contenders for 2007 but he is said to accept that, outside the big cities, and in the South, his sexual orientation makes him unelectable.

So much for France as a nation of social advance. But is the the only score against Ségolène Royal the fact that she is a woman? Ségo is far from a typical socialist. She was born in Senegal into a military family of eight children. Her authoritarian father, who had risen from the ranks to become an officer, held trenchant right-wing and anti-feminist views. Ségolène, in revolt, declared herself a socialist in her teens. She met Hollande at ENA and became a protégé of François Mitterrand and Jacques Attali. François found Jacques Delors, then Lionel Jospin.

At first, her career prospered more than his. She was education minister and health minister, espousing causes not popular with socialists, such as the struggle against pornography and prostitution. When he became first secretary of the party in 1997, Ségolène's career stalled. M. Jospin did not like a husband and wife at the Socialist top table.

But when Mme Royal captured the Poitou-Charente region, she relaunched her career. Her supporters say she achieved her success by radiating warmth and talking about real, local problems not abstractions. Her (many) detractors in the party say she is at heart a cold woman, with a streak of her father's authoritarianism. But what Ségolène would actually do as president is unclear. Her critics say she has never held any of the large ministries of state and has never made a detailed speech on economic or foreign policy. This is true, but equally true of, say, Jack Lang. No one suggested, inside or outside the Socialist Party, that he had no right to declare presidential ambitions.

The point is not that Ségolène Royal is the perfect candidate for the Socialists and a shoo-in for the presidency. She is not. The point is, she has earned as much right as other contenders to be taken seriously. It is the shame of France, and the Parti Socialiste, that she is being jeered mostly because she is a woman.

Five other political partners who ran for office

* IMELDA MARCOS The former Philippine first lady made two runs for the presidency, both of which were defeated. Her career in politics began in 1965 when her husband Ferdinand was elected president and, as first lady, she took an active role in politics. Even after his regime was toppled and they fled the country, the woman perhaps best-known for her collection of shoes returned to run for president but was once again trounced.

* SONIA GANDHI

The Italian-born politician took the helm of the Congress Party in India after her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed in 1991 by a suicide bomber. She surrendered her Italian passport and became a full Indian citizen. She remains the president of the Congress Party, but says she does not want to become the country's next prime minister.

* GERALDINE FERRARO

Still the only woman to have run as a candidate for vice-president of the United States. In 1984, she ran with Walter Mondale for the presidency bill, but was dogged by questions over her and her real estate dealer husband's finances. She left politics after the failed run and now works occasionally as an analyst for Fox News.

* EVA PERON

Before she was the first lady of Argentina, she was a radio broadcaster. When her husband Juan Domingo Peron ran for the presidency, she used the airwaves to campaign for him. She was hugely popular as first lady and in 1951 sought to formalise her popularity by seeking the vice-presidency. The move so outraged military leaders that her husband rescinded her nomination. She died of cancer at the age of 33.

* HILLARY CLINTON

She was one of the most openly politically active first ladies in the history of the White House. Her husband Bill Clinton's career was plagued with rumours of extra-marital affairs, which produced both pity and scorn for Hillary. In 2000, she won a New York Senate seat, and has since been widely tipped as the next presidential challenger for the 2008 vote.

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